Tuesday, May 5, 2009

2-8: Countryside



Chapter 7 here ... Chapter 9 here

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I

‘They jumped one and stun-gunned the other,’ reported the elegant secretary with the swept back hair.

The smallish man with the expensive suit spoke; his voice was silky smooth but dangerous in its intensity. ‘That’s not so good, Sophie-Fleury; it’s a little worrying what they’ll say before we get to them.’

The woman knew better than to interrupt his train of thought. He rested his elbows on the armrest of his swivel-chair, finger tips together, then swung round and gazed out of the window, frowning. He swung back and spoke. ‘All right, I’ll have to use up yet more favours. Contact Russia and get it started.’

He rose and came to the door with her, moved up close and looked deeply, searchingly into her eyes. She knew the cue. Locking the door significantly, she glided back, shrugged her jacket to the floor, and fixed him with an enigmatic smile.

‘Good, good, ma petite,’ he whispered.

Le Roux would have to find himself a new secretary.

II

Geneviève came back to Hugh in the gloaming, alone and ready for the night. She went to the bathroom for some time, he knocked, apologized and asked if she was OK.

'Fine, Hugh, relax.'

He thought forward into the night and had a feeling this might well be the one where Genie was going to make her move, the one she was well within her rights to make.

He phoned Nikki from the landline. 'I think Genie and I might make love tonight. Nothing's been said yet but it seems that way.  If it happens with you there, then it happens.'

Silence at the other end, then he said, 'It's almost over, Nikki.'

'Bonne nuit, Hugh.' He heard her fumbling to disconnect the phone at the other end and then it clicked off.

The flat was silent, the street noise had diminished. Geneviève was sitting on the armrest of a chair, in his blue shirt again, looking down at the floor. ‘Are you ready to wash? I ran the bath.’

She did a thorough job in the bathroom and the sight of her beneath the hem of the shirt had the intended effect on that which she was inordinately washing.

It was painfully obvious that they were out of practice because when they reached the bed, she just lay there, waiting for it to begin.

'Genie, I'm in gyps. It makes it difficult for me to turn on my side or move much. You'll need to do most of the moving.'

Bless her, she turned to face him and said, 'Oh, Hugh, I wasn't thinking. Of course.' She did move up but something stopped her climbing on top. He looked at her and suggested she do.

She did and they went into forty minutes of pleasure. When it had happened twice, she said, 'That was lovely,' climbed off, snuggled up to him and began to drowse. He felt her breathing on his chest start to deepen, he held her, she snuggled up closer and he reflected.

She really wasn't aware, on a certain level. A woman of the earth, of the forest, yet she was so out of touch with this side of it. She'd really meant 'it was lovely', he was sure of it and felt he could keep her happy.   Genie was not a demanding woman.

Nikki though.

III

Emma was sitting on a chair at the Lodge, near Francine’s bed, Francine asking, 'Are we being too hard on Nikki? Why shouldn't she find happiness?’

'That's a shift for you, Franka.'

'Well look at it. Nikki can always fall back on Thierry but so can Mademoiselle, if we work it right.'

'The Inspector?'

'No - she'd do to him what she did to Hugh. Nikki adores Hugh.'

'I know - but for how long?'

'I think this might be the one, Emma.'

'Hmmm. Then we need to force the issue. Tell me about how it is with Jean.'

'Ah. Yes. Well, that's a long story.'

'I have all day.'

IV

When he awoke next morning, Hugh could hear Geneviève rattling about, cooking something, maybe eggs. He put on the gown, came to the kitchen and she was in that shirt still, knife in hand. Now he'd always taken her for a very clean, hygienic person but that shirt hem had those stains around it.

She spun round, delighted, energized, saw his eyes carefully watching the knife, she ceremoniously put it back in its holder, dried her hands, gave him a big kiss and the various breakfast makings to take through to the living room.

She followed, carrying a tray, the winter sun broke through, bathing her auburn hair and below the breakfast tray, below the hem of the shirt, her solid thighs curved and the muscles moved in waves.

She set the tray down on the coffee table, he stepped over, she knew what was coming and moved her feet further apart, he took her from behind and kissed the nape of her neck at the same time.  

She was artless, Genie and that merely intensified the feeling, the whole thing became quite raw, quite wet and quite messy, nothing slick, no finesse to it, just sexual sloshing in the rawest possible way, her foot was up on the chair and he was thumping as hard as
a man in gyps could manage, one of her thighs was soaked.

There was one aspect he now needed to admit to himself and it wasn't one most men would face.  The most euphemistic way he could put it was that there was a certain disproportion to her overall size and his.  

In a nutshell, Philippe, Michel, even the Inspector and his Sergeant were tallish men and in proportion, as was Genie.  He himself was also in proportion but for someone like, say, Nikki or even Emma or Nadine, though Emma seemed to have a penchant for the larger men too.

Even in mid-thrust - and she certainly showed no signs of not enjoying it - he couldn't help but think she needed a larger man in the long term, a more powerful man who was into the thrust-spurt-roll-off and fall-asleep type.   He could lift her where he wanted her but it was always going to use up more energy than with Nikki, Emma or Nadine.

They heard the door lock turn, knew it would be Nadine, whom they’d clean forgotten was arriving early, Geneviève went and sat down, toying with the cold breakfast, he stayed where he was, not able to do much about his nakedness, Nadine kicked off her shoes, glanced into the living room, smelt it before she saw it, caught a glimpse of Geneviève’s wet thighs, stained shirt hem, open legs and her attempts to pass it off as normal, immediately turned and went to put her shoes back on.

Geneviève skipped up on bare feet like a girl and took her by the hands, themselves sticky. ‘Please, Nadine.’   Nadine pulled her hands away and went to the kitchen to wash them.

‘Nada, please,’ begged Geneviève, following her.

Nadine spun round and with a gesture, indicated the dissoluteness.

‘Please, Nada,’ Geneviève begged again.

‘It’s none of my business,’ snapped Nadine, as she busied herself about the flat, gathering this and that, packing baskets.

.o0o.

Two hours later she was in Melun, collecting Nicolette to drive to her father’s parents, past Sivry Courtry, to a farmhouse near Chatelet-en-Brie. The wheels of the Peugeot drummed along the cobblestoned road and consequently, the two of them did not so much speak as stutter.

‘M-Mademoiselle Nikki?’

‘O-oui?’

‘T-to w-whom d-do you think my first loyalty should be - to y-you or to M- Mademoiselle Genev-ieve?’

This was too important, so Nicolette ordered her to pull over. She did pull over, applied the handbrake, and both sat staring through the windscreen.

It was Nicolette who began. ‘Just exactly what are you getting at, Nadine?’

‘When will you decide between them?’

She was direct. Nicolette thought of acting the innocent but then thought again. ‘I don’t know. Thierry is ... I can’t say goodbye.’

‘How does Hugh feel about you sleeping with Thierry?’

‘He understands - if it’s the last time. I only slept with Thierry - that way - for the first time last night so Hugh doesn’t actually know about that yet.’

‘Call me old fashioned but I don’t like what I'm seeing.’

‘Explain.’

‘I’m trying to get Stefan to become serious about me – I’d give him my world – but he has other girls. Why does he have others? Why doesn’t he either have me or let me go?’ Her eyes filled, Nicolette took her hand but she went on, ‘You have Hugh but you also keep Thierry on, you keep them separated and play both lovers against each other. Is it amusing for you, this game?’

Nicolette didn’t immediately respond. Then she replied, ‘Seriously, I’m not playing a game. Thierry came first, then I fell for Hugh.’

‘You must decide,’ she said bitterly. ‘You must. It’s not fair.’

‘I didn’t know it affected you like this, Nadine.’

‘Either contact Hugh and say sorry but no thanks and let Mademoiselle have him for once and for all or else go straight to rue de Bercy today.’

‘Something happened with Mademoiselle?’

‘Mademoiselle is like a ship without a rudder – what are you trying to do?   It was disgusting, Nikki, it smelt awful, her shirt was stained all over the hem and when she took my hands ... they were ... sticky.   I felt sick, Nikki, I wanted to throw up.’

The colour in Nicolette's face had drained. ‘You have a way of getting straight to the heart of the matter, don’t you?   Yes, you’re right, I must decide.’

‘And do it today.  Look, at least send Mademoiselle to Thierry.  At least do that.  Coax her there, on the pretext of security.’

‘Yes but I can't get away yet - you know that.  Will you go to Hugh tonight?’

‘If you wish me to. Will you also require me to have sticky intercourse with him? Which passage do you wish me to make available?   The Section can take it in turns, if you like, a different girl for each weeknight and Mademoiselle on the weekend.   You could even have a turn some days.’

Nicolette shot her a glance but decided not to rise to it. They continued the drive to her grandparents, deep in thought, until they reached the farmhouse at the end of a short laneway, off the main N105, on the far side of the little town.

They parked and went inside.

.o0o.

The conversation began after the cheese. ‘I can’t give you any advice, petite, unless you present him to me. We know Thierry already, of course. You’ll have to bring your Hugo here for the weekend – that’s all I can say.’

‘He doesn’t speak French.’

‘Not at all?’

‘Well, not enough to converse.’

‘Will Nadine translate?’

‘Oui, bien sûr,’ Nadine replied.

‘So, enough for now. Time for a stroll, don’t you think?’

They rugged up, booted up and wandered down the straight lane with its stone walls and overhanging rows of dark tree trunks and branches in the winter chill which only induced a sense of foreboding.

V

Francine was standing at the window of the Lodge this Sunday at 10:30, looking out on the droplets falling from the eaves and from the branches - there were so many trees on their patch of land which led into the forest that the droplets resembled rain.

The mobile went and she glanced down - text message.

She pursed her lips reading it, went and put on the coffee, then came back and woke Jean up on the divan. He went to the bathroom and some minutes later they were sipping on coffee, both sitting obliquely on the divan and looking at one another.

‘Jean, I just had a message.’ He raised an eyebrow enquiringly. ‘A coded text message from Genie. We’re on alert. We’ve also been weapons training, in case you didn't know.’ He was amused. ‘Yes, very funny but you won’t be laughing in a moment.’ The smile disappeared from his face.

She refilled their cups. ‘I’m going to give you a fair chance here. You see, Jean, I have to go away.’

‘Francine, non, Charlotte is completely over.’

‘Oh I’m not even talking about that. When we go on group alert, which this is, it’s something pretty special, something major. That and the weapons training do mean there’s trouble. All I’m saying is you can stay here at the Lodge and keep it maintained for a while until you find your own place or you can come with me.’

He shuffled uneasily and asked, ‘Where are you going?’

‘If I knew that, I’d tell you. I don’t know for how long or if it’s forever. If we’re in danger, Jean, we just go. I’m saying that you might not find me here one day after work. That’s all. So you must decide – stay here for a month or two while I sell the place or come with me.’

VI

In rue de Bercy, hours later, the darkness was closing in and the blinds had been drawn when Hugh received Nicolette’s call, asking to be put through to Geneviève. He handed her the receiver, she threw her long auburn hair back over her shoulder and listened.

Eventually she rang off and explained to Hugh, ‘Nadine told her what we did and we need to pack, we’re going to Melun.’

‘Melun?’

‘Yes, but you’re not actually going to the town, only I am. You, M. Jensen, are about to enter the mysterious world of the French countryside - you’re going to Chatelet-en-Brie. The good news is that you’ll experience some of the best cuisine you’ve had since you’ve been here.’

‘Er – who exactly am I staying with?’

‘Nikki’s grandparents.’

‘And you?’

‘I’m staying with Thierry.’

‘Thierry! What’s this all about?’

‘To get me away from you, of course. Nadine was appalled at what we did.’

‘You don’t seem angry with her.’

‘I can understand how she’d feel.’

‘So what do you think - shall we go?’

‘Of course. We couldn’t have continued this way, Hugh. I don’t want to have a sexual relationship with someone who’s not my partner. I told you I’m old-fashioned. This weekend, you have to make your decision.’

‘I presume I won’t be with Nikki either?’

‘You presume right.’

‘And of course, not with you?’

‘Again right. You’ll just have the lovely Nadine. Of course, you could stay with Stefan if you're not happy with Nadine.’   The look on his face amused her.  'Thought so.   Nadine will be there in a few hours.'

.o0o.

Hugh spent the afternoon sorting out his affairs. By the time Nadine arrived, it was late afternoon and they were ready to go.

The evening drive across the bridge to the left bank and then out of Paris was heavy and yet a delight – the city lights progressively diminishing until they finally found themselves in a night as black as pitch, careering along a country road in the direction of the unknown, with Nadine driving, Genie beside her and with him stretched out on the back seat.

The first drops of rain began to fall lightly and the wipers started up. He could see the ghostly curve of Nadine’s jaw reflected in the green light from the instrument panel and compared her to Russian women.

The differences were mainly in the lips with the French. Possibly the Russian had the greater classic beauty but the French woman knew what to do to maximize her seductive power. A French woman he'd known years ago had told him that they had trouble with ‘rides’ or lines near their mouths, simply as a result of speaking French - with that constant pulling down of the sides of the lips although Genie seemed quite free of those and Nadine was too young.

It took some time to get to their destination but it felt as if they had all the time in the world. Eventually they turned down a lane and pulled into a small gravel area in front of a farmhouse.

The grandfather, with his umbrella, went around to Geneviève’s door; she wound down the window and exchanged pleasantries, but it was clear she had no intention of going inside. He nodded to Nadine and Hugh who now took the bags from the back, she and the grandfather went inside but he propped by the window.

‘Geneviève.’

‘Non, Hugh, you must go inside – they’re waiting for you – the guest must go. I’ll soon be in Melun and I’ll call you tomorrow, all right?’  He hesitated but she whispered,  ‘Go now - please don’t embarrass me and especially don’t kiss me.   I love you, Hugh.’

‘And I - you.’  He moved swiftly across the rain pocked gravel to the farmhouse, now soaked.  Two people were observing the scene from the main window – a woman and her grandmother.

In the small foyer area, the others having gone through to the house proper, he ran straight into Nicolette who slapped his face in the way she'd practised until she'd put the required amount of sting into it but no more.  'That's for Emma, not for Mademoiselle.'

'Do you think I'll put up with this?  Just who do you think I am?  You are to make your decision, Hugh and make it now.' 

That's when he glanced down at her bare legs and skirt, then up at her face again, he pulled her hard to him but she said quietly, ‘Stop one minute. I don’t like what we've been doing. Mademoiselle.  And Emma was unforgivable.'  She slapped him more gently this time. 'Thierry made love to me last night. That also stops. No more, Hugh, no more.'

She quickly realized she'd got away with it and pressed her advantage. 'If it's me you've decided on, then make love to me now - we have about five minutes.'

.o0o.

After the introductions, he was soon seated on one side of a long table, with bench seats either side and a view through to the car, where Geneviève sat bolt upright in the passenger seat.

He saw Nicolette run out in sports skirt and white trainers, carrying a half full sports bag, she threw it in the back and went to the driver’s side. The old lady rested a hand on his arm and the old chap on the other side of the table handed him an aperitif.

So, it had all been arranged.

Well, fine, he accepted that – let’s play this one through to its logical conclusion, he knew he had to be gracious with his host and they knew he knew the game too. He smiled his appreciation and they toasted to something he couldn’t quite pick up in French but it sounded honourable.

Nadine came through, having donned Nicolette’s big fluffy slippers, with Nico and Lette woven across them, instantly smelt it on him again, her eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped, then she recovered and faltered, ‘I’ll ... um ... um ... translate when necessary but try your French anyway, Hugh – it’s a compliment to your hosts.’

Of course he would – there’d never been any question about it.

...

In the car outside, Nicolette adjusted the seat and the mirrors, started up, turned on the lights and made her way gingerly down the driveway. They reached the open road and turned right, drove maybe a kilometre and a half, then swung into a lay-by.

‘Papillon.’

‘Moineau.’

It was an embrace of long-separated sisters.

‘Don’t blame Nada,’ Nicolette pleaded, ‘I got it out of her. She was really upset about what she saw, about how raw it was.’

‘Not unlike twenty minutes ago, Nikki?’

‘Ah.'

'In the foyer, yes?'

Nicolette nodded and Geneviève looked at her. 'This can't go on you know. He said he loved me about two minutes, by my reckoning, before he was inside you.   Is he playing us against one another?'

'I don't think he really knows how to deal with it.  You know he and Emma had sex.'

'What!'

She explained.

'Still doesn't excuse it. Should we both refuse to accept him?'  She looked hard at Nicolette who went silent.  'I see.'

Nikki took her hand and looked at her. 'My feelings for you will never change.'

She touched Nicolette's cheek with the other hand, Nikki started up the car again, pulled out and they made their way to Melun, deep in thought over many issues.

VII

Thierry was the consummate gentleman, implicitly understanding all and Geneviève concluded that when a Frenchman decided to pull out all stops, there were few women in the world who could resist.

He knew precisely the right word, the right wine, the right topics of conversation to draw her out of herself and it would never dry up, that conversation, the children had taken to her and she knew there was a home beckoning her here.

But did she want such a home?

It was not unlike being shunted into a railroad siding, admittedly with beautiful scenery and a happy cottage at the end of it, but that was the point – it would be the end.  Hugh never had an end – and yet he was ageing, despite his total failure to recognize the symptoms.

The moment had come to retire for the night and both she and Thierry understood how this was likely to end up.

VIII

Nadine was satisfied with how it had all gone. She felt power in her role as translator - certain replies of Hugh’s had needed slight modification to make them more acceptable to an elderly French couple and yet she’d stayed true to the essence.

Was she playing matchmaker?

Well – yes, she had to admit it - she’d already decided on Hugh for Nicolette and had set the wheels in motion with Emma. If only the Thierry-Mademoiselle connection could also be secured, some sort of solution could be found. She had a feeling deep inside, Nadine, that it would need to be found soon.

Hugh made ready downstairs in the all-purpose guestroom and she made ready in Nikki’s former bedroom upstairs with its princess décor, a room the grandmother maintained in its former glory, in anticipation of the return of the granddaughter.

She was appalled by what she’d seen in the morning, Mademoiselle all wet like that and Nikki’s attitude too. She needed to talk some sense into him, for him to take Nikki and be done. She needed to speak to him about it now.

Scarcely knowing what she was doing nor why, she got up, tiptoed over to the cupboard and replaced pyjamas with robe.  Slipping on Nikki's fluffy slippers, she gulped and made her way to the door of the room.

Listening intently and hearing only a snore in the grandparent's room, she made her way slowly downstairs, knowing which creaky parts of the stairs to avoid, turned right at the bottom, saw that his door was slightly ajar, thought about knocking but listened instead.  He'd probably only just fallen asleep - the train had left the station but had not yet built up a full head of steam.

She went through.

He was now quite aware of her presence and she was aware that he was aware because everything had gone silent.  Now he whispered, 'One moment.'

He shuffled over closer to the wall, which made the decision for her.   Dropping her robe, she slipped in beside him and lay on her back.

'I don't want sex,' she whispered.

'Of course not.'

'I'm here to talk about Nikki, you must give up Mademoiselle now and stick with one woman.'

'Yes.'

In the silence, she couldn't believe herself but she reached over and it was hard, she took it in her hand.  Then she started kneading it.   Then she stopped, climbed out and put her robe on, making for the door.

She must have stood there close to a minute in the silence, then came back and stood by the bed, staring down at the duvet.

Finally she decided and climbed under, lying on her back as before, hands on her chest.

‘Why don’t you say something,’ she whispered, ‘why don’t you do something?’   His hand rested over hers and she appreciated that.  'May I stay?'

'I feared you would go.'  

‘I wasn’t going.’

IX

Jean-Claude poured himself a cognac and settled into his armchair, opened le Figaro and checked the day's news.  Not the usual gazette for a policeman, he smiled.

The wall clock ticked and he put on Debussy to ease the silence. Policework was good in that it consumed huge chunks of your day. It was these nights, these silences which were not so good. He’d long since learned to put Francesca out of his mind because to think about her, to reflect on her presence in his bed beside him, brought untold pain.

Was he weak?

He was a man and he knew she’d understand that, she’d always understood. There’d been two failings and he’d come so close to losing her. Geneviève was his second failing; she’d caught his imagination - quiet, measured and mature.

He looked at his hands - the long fingers still supple and strong – they’d always been his strong point, the ladies had always liked his hands. My goodness he was lonely and he had to do something about it whilst he still could.

Francesca would surely understand.

X

Next morning, Emma went out for supplies.

Now free, Nicolette thought the place to start was at the computer. As Geneviève had discovered before her, it was a mine of information. She saw a midi on the desktop, with the lyrics too and clicked on both files - clearly, they were meant to be listened to and read simultaneously.

The song started and she began to sing to herself:

‘Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses? You’ve been out riding fences, for so long now. Oh, you’re a hard one, but I know that you’ve got your reasons - these things that are pleasing you can hurt you somehow. Don’t you draw the queen of diamonds, boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able; you know, the queen of hearts is always your best bet. Now it seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table but you only want the ones that you can’t get.’

Then she caught her breath – below this verse was Geneviève’s name, underlined. She felt physically sick and switched off the midi. Breathing heavily, she finally regained control and was determined to think a little more clearly about this.  Ah yes, the creation date and the date of the last change were the same; she breathed more easily – it predated his accident and he’d not gone back and altered it.

Well, that could mean a number of things.

.o0o.

Emma returned with the supplies and with a mighty strange piece of news. The Inspector had had a phone call from that unidentified female again, warning him the Section was to be hit. This time, Emma herself had been there, dropping off documents and he’d immediately put her on the line. The woman had warned that the Section was now to be hit on Noel. How could the claim be verified? It couldn’t. She’d taken Emma’s direct number and had then rung off.

Nicolette immediately asked Emma to drive her to Melun.

XI

Breakfast now over, Hugh went and sat on the plush divan, Nadine came up and sat beside him. ‘What are you thinking of?’ she asked.

‘I’m wondering about whether we’re ready, whether we've trained enough.’

'You're also thinking about last night.'

'And that.'

'I - I don't know what to say -'

'No need, Nadine. No need.'

She nodded. 'You must think I'm -'

'No, I don't. Not in the least.   Because then I would be too.'

She gazed at him and then asked, 'Would you like to go for a walk?'

XII

In the living room of Thierry Villeneuve, Emma imparted the contents of the strange call to Geneviève, who believed it immediately.

The decision was made instantly to use the farmhouse for a last gathering, a chance to finalize pairings, Ollie would go to a friend's during this and be collected the next morning, Francesca would accompany her father.

...

Jean-Claude clicked the mobile shut and thought about the message which had just come in. He took out the folded paper in his inside breast pocket and ran the message against the code.

Staring at the paper, he now had a major career decision to make. The first choice was to leave his position virtually for ever and throw in his lot with a group of people he liked immensely, where there were no guarantees but still - a chance of securing the life partner he’d set his heart on. Or he could take his chances, alone, in Paris.

He phoned Jacques and found him at home.

XIII

Halfway to a gully on the edge of the property, Nadine commented, 'It's nearly over, isn't it? For us I mean, as a Section.'

'It looks that way. The last few days have been very strange, abnormal.'

There was a noise some distance behind them, they turned and saw two figures emerge from the back door, in wellingtons - Nikki and Emma.  Emma beckoned Nadine and Nikki nodded him towards the gully.

When they got there, she said, 'Nadine's handkerchief was beside your bed.   If you tell me the truth, then I'll lay down my conditions and you can take them or leave them.  I don't care any more. If you don't tell me the truth, it's over right now.  Speak and remember, Emma is speaking with Nadine.'

He looked at her and recounted it in detail.   'There was no kiss.'

Nicolette looked at him evenly.  'No sex, no relationship, no marriage?'

'None.  I held her through the night, she’s very lonely.  I'm sorry.'

'I'll tell you my conditions in a minute.   News has come through Emma's and Jean-Claude's contact that we're about to be hit and so we need to leave France, as we've planned - but that complicates things. 

Francine, Jean, Mademoiselle, Thierry, Francesca, Jean-Claude and Jacques Fournier will arrive soon. Olivier wanted to stay with his grandparents, Michel can't be seen to leave Paris until we're ready tomorrow, Stefan - well, Mademoiselle did not invite him.

We will be in safehouses in combat pairs, as you know but we still don't know the pairs, do we?  This business with Nadine has destroyed it all.   And Nadine was the one who wanted these pairs.   She was the moral conscience of the Section.

Emma's proposing a strange sort of tournoi à la ronde. There are Thierry, you, Jean-Claude, his Sergeant, Mademoiselle, me, Nadine and we need pairs.   One man will be without a woman and the way I'm thinking, that will be you.   I know Nadine and she takes what is there.   This Sergeant has her eye.   Mademoiselle has Jean-Claude and Thierry has me - he won't do to me what you have done.   He won't humilate me, he never has.’  She was more furious than he could ever remember.

‘Your conditions, Nikki ?’

‘Emma wants this charade where we spend 45 minutes with someone, trying to get them to be our partner or else saying goodbye.  Giving everyone one last chance to persuade the other one.  You can make love to Mademoiselle one last time but Nadine - you don't even go into a room with her.  Is that clear about Nadine?'

‘Yes.  It wasn’t even on the menu.  OK Nikki, you said yes to Genie, therefore I must allow you Thierry.’

‘That’s your decision.’

‘You know it’s not, not for either of us.  If you agree to come to me later, I need to know it’s over between you two and you need to know that with me.  There’s one more though – someone you secretly like and he is a great danger to me.’

‘You mean Michel?  He won’t be here today but I can say – he was a childhood dream.  I’ve thought about him but he’s Emma’s, you know that.  Besides, if I make a play for him, that leaves Emma free – and I don't want that.’

...

Geneviève had just explained to Thierry and predictably, he relished the chance to see Nicolette one last time, to make one last ditch attempt to persuade her but wasn't at all happy about Geneviève having time with Hugh. 'I don't trust the man,' he muttered.

She explained that he couldn't have it both ways. If he gave up the chance to be with Nikki one last time, then she would give up the chance to be with Hugh.

He accepted with bad grace.

.o0o.

The time arrived. They'd lunched late, lunched well and were now sitting in the main room, glasses in hand, waiting for Geneviève to begin.

She was about to open her mouth to address the assembled gathering when Emma’s phone rang, she snapped to attention and leaned forward, straining to hear every word and shooshing everyone with her hand.

‘Oui, je comprends,’ she told the caller.

With the other hand, she hurriedly demanded paper and something to write with - Thierry leapt up and supplied it from the kitchen bench. Hugh brought her a carving board to put under the paper.

‘Oui,’ answered Emma, scribbling as fast as she could, broke the lead and was given another pencil almost immediately. ‘Oui, oui? Uh-huh, j’ai ecouter. Quand? Uh-huh.’

Then the line went dead, Emma looked at her mobile for a moment and put it away.

‘Anything new?’ asked Geneviève.

‘Oui, details of exactly how they plan to do it.’ She showed the paper to Geneviève, who scrutinized it, nodded from time to time, then turned to expectant faces.

‘It’s worse than we suspected. It will be simultaneous, involving eighteen people in six teams. They’re using standard issue rounds from our own Section and incriminating documents are to be planted to discredit us over our recent militarization.’

‘When’s it to be?’ asked Hugh.

‘On Noel, early morning. But there’s something else – I was to be killed in Melun and Nikki at your flat. Now isn’t that interesting – how many people would have come to that conclusion?’

Silence was the response.

‘Well, that's not one we’ll resolve here and now. So, everyone, perhaps we’d best begin.’

Outside the six-paned farmhouse windows, the sun struggled feebly from behind dark clouds but the atmosphere within the main room was both pleasant and warm – a company of good friends and good cheer, with only the imminent threat clouding the atmosphere.

'So what you're proposing is a general orgy,' muttered Jean-Claude.

‘Non,' said Geneviève, ‘that’s not my vision of the process. Speaking for myself, I wish to hear what each man has to say to me and I want to feel him physically close to me. Of course, others may see it differently.’

‘Mathematically, at least one and maybe even more people are going to lose out by this process,’ Thierry commented. ‘Can we expect them to meekly accept this?’

Emma spoke. ‘No we can’t but that’s life anyway, isn’t it?’

Nadine put in, ‘So if we don’t accept your conditions for this game, that automatically leaves us alone and who decides who persuades who anyway?’

‘No one decides, Nada,’ Nicolette chipped in. ‘No rules. Just how we feel. If there’s any dispute, then Emma will be the final arbiter. Agreed?’

Again silence.

Geneviève interrupted their thoughts. ‘All right, do I hear any dissenting voices?’

It was Francesca who spoke up. ‘But why must I give someone else a chance to make love to the person I want?’

Thierry looked at her sharply but Emma replied. ‘Because that’s how it happens in real life, Chessa, only here it will be faster.’

‘The danger in that though,’ said Thierry, ‘is that some things really do take time to come to maturity - they can’t be forced into a 45 minute period.’

‘Agreed, Thierry and yet the main players today have already thought long and hard about who they want and what they'd like to hear from various people. For some, it might even be a farewell time together. It’s not as if we’re coming into this cold.’

‘I am.’

All eyes turned to Francesca and Thierry chuckled. ‘No, Chessa, I don't think you understand, Petite - this is to decide couples, it’s about partnerships.’

‘Oh really, Papa? You want me to end up an old maid, I see.’

‘Chessa,' he replied, more abruptly, 'it’s out of the question. With the greatest respect to the male company here today, it’s right out of the question. This is not a game.’

Seeing the suppressed fury in her face and the possibility of rebellion, he asked if the two of them could be excused for a few minutes. Jeanette-Fleur pounced on the opportunity to distribute refreshments, everyone sipped, nibbled and waited.

There were muffled sounds of raised voices from the other end of the house and then father and daughter returned.

Thierry announced, glumly, ‘Chessa’s in the game.’ She glared around for any signs of dissent and the silence was slightly embarrassing as she resumed her place. One man was implacably opposed, one was bemused, one considered it for a few seconds then put it out of mind and the fourth was stroking his chin.

All the females were assessing the danger level.

IX

It was up to Emma now to give the exact timings. 'Round 1 starts at 16:00 and a man and a woman can use either the first or second outhouse, the guestroom or Nikki’s old bedroom upstairs. That’s four rooms for four couples. At the end of Round 1, couples return to the main room here for refreshments and general talk.

Then, at 17:00, Round 2 starts, then at 18:00, Round 3 and the rounds finish at 18:45. From 18:45 to 20:00, anyone still not satisfied can have 15 minutes to put any last questions.’

She paused and looked across at Nicolette, who concluded the arrangements: ‘At 20:00, my grandparents invite you to dinner and then to stay overnight. The two outhouses are comfortable and warm enough for the boys, and the girls can stay in the main house. Is that impossible for any person here?’

Silence.

'Breakfast will be at 07:00 and we depart for Melun at 08:00. At Melun, we disperse according to our secure procedures. All clear? All agreed?’

‘So let’s negotiate,’ said Geneviève. ‘Personally, if he still sees himself as a player for my hand, I'd like to hear from Jean-Claude.’

That surprised everyone but some of the biggest surprises now came in a flurry of activity, with Emma, Francine and Nicolette observing all, the latter delaying her exit until she'd taken in the whole picture.

Francesca made a bee line straight for Jacques, which was hardly surprising but was beaten to it by Nadine who'd already manoeuvred herself geographically closer and now presented herself but the shock to Nicolette was that, having seen off the younger girl, Nadine now turned and made direct eye contact with Hugh, mouthing, 'Second round,' and getting a smile in return.

If Nicolette was shocked by that, it was worse a moment later when Emma smiled across the room at him too - maybe she was just smiling at Nadine's clumsy tactics but somehow Nikki thought there was something more there, then she dismissed it as ridiculous but now Emma caught Thierry's eye and it was a flirtatious look Emma gave.

What on earth was Emma up to? What was worse, Thierry appeared to be looking curiously at Emma and now there was a smile at the corner of his lip.   Oh, for goodness sake.

Chessa, pipped for her first choice, immediately made a move for her father who was already with Nikki, so now she strode over to Hugh and presented herself, which had Thierry taking a step forward but Nicolette rested a hand on his arm and said, 'You needn't worry about that - I can guarantee it.'

Thierry paused and accepted Nikki's assurance with bad grace, Hugh now caught Nikki's look of amusement at his discomfort, he looked back at Francesca and tried not to sigh, he had another glance across the room and for a second time, Emma caught his eye and what worried Nikki greatly was that Emma not only returned the look but held it until he turned back to Chessa.

Now it was his turn to be miffed as Jacques made eyes at Nikki and her own eyes must have opened wide because Jacques' look now became a question. She was enormously flattered and must have gone bright red but a coquettish tilt of the head and pursed lips said, 'Maybe, maybe not,' Jacques smiled and then killed the whole effect by doing the same with Emma. What a budding Don Juan she thought as she turned back to Thierry who'd been observing all of it. She now looked over, saw that Hugh had also seen and went red again.

The last she saw was Hugh, still in the living room, speaking earnestly with Francesca and Emma sidling over in that direction. Emma wasn't in the game - she was supposed to be the adjudicator.


Nikki did not like this turn of events one bit and it was with misgivings that she turned back to Thierry and went with him.


Chapter 7 here ... Chapter 9 here

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